Omitting for Obama
How the Old Media Deliberately Censored New Media Scoops in 2009


The same pattern surfaced days later, when again, a story damaging to Obama would be ignored until the government took action. On September 10, the website Big Government exposed, with hidden-camera footage, how the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) in Baltimore advised a man and woman posing as a pimp and a prostitute how to shelter their illegal income from taxes, even as they claimed they were bringing in under-age girls from Latin America to be their sex workers. As a community organizer and then as a lawyer, Obama built a longstanding relationship with ACORN, and counted on their support in his presidential campaign.

While the video aired heavily on Fox News, the networks evening news shows stayed silent for six days, until after both houses of Congress moved to deny the group’s millions of dollars in federal funding. Eventually, ABC and CBS aired only one full story. NBC aired three.

ABC broke the network blackout on Saturday morning, September 12, with a brief anchor update from Ron Claiborne about the Census Bureau cutting its "ties to the community group ACORN for the 2010 Census."

CBS did the first full story, on the September 15 Evening News. Correspondent Cynthia Bowers strongly brought the ACORN side of the story: "ACORN says the workers caught on tape were fired, but contends the videos were illegally obtained, doctored and deceptive, and is threatening legal action against the undercover filmmakers posing as the couple." NBC’s Lisa Myers picked up the story on Today the next morning. While Myers used the conservative label five times in her report to describe ACORN’s critics, like CBS’s Bowers, she never described the community organization as liberal.

Neither did White House reporter Jake Tapper when ABC arrived last, on the evening of September 16. Anchor Charles Gibson told a tale of partisan targeting: "For years, Republicans in that city have been taking aim at an umbrella group of community organizers called ACORN. Opposition to the group intensified when ACORN helped President Obama in his election campaign. And now a videotape has surfaced which has prompted calls for investigations of ACORN’s activities."

Tapper began, "It’s the nation’s largest grass roots organization lobbying for and reaching out to poor and minority communities." He divulged the group’s "close ties with Democrats," but never used a liberal label. But Gibson and Tapper noted they were targeted by Republicans (four times) and by conservatives (another two times). Tapper also told viewers the video aired frequently on Fox News, as another subtle way of saying it was not a "mainstream" story.

The most surprising moment in this omission controversy came when liberal comedian Jon Stewart mocked the networks on The Daily Show on Comedy Central: "Where were the real reporters on this story? You know what investigative media, see me on Camera Three: Where the hell were you?...You’re telling me that two kids from the cast of High School Musical 3 can break this story with a video camera and their grandmother’s chinchilla coat? And you got nothing?"

None found it worth noting when President Obama claimed to George Stephanopoulos, "Frankly, it’s not something I’ve followed closely," adding he had not been aware that ACORN received much federal money. John Fund of The Wall Street Journal insisted that was an odd defense:

Mr. Obama took great pains to act as if he barely knew about ACORN. In fact, his association goes back almost 20 years. In 1991, he took time off from his law firm to run a voter-registration drive for Project Vote, an ACORN partner that was soon fully absorbed under the ACORN umbrella. The drive registered 135,000 voters and was considered a major factor in the upset victory of Democrat Carol Moseley Braun over incumbent Democratic Senator Alan Dixon in the 1992 Democratic Senate primary.

Mr. Obama’s success made him a hot commodity on the community organizing circuit. He became a top trainer at ACORN’s Chicago conferences. In 1995, he became ACORN’s attorney, participating in a landmark case to force the state of Illinois to implement the federal Motor Voter Law. That law’s loose voter registration requirements would later be exploited by Acorn employees in an effort to flood voter rolls with fake names.

In 1996, Mr. Obama filled out a questionnaire listing key supporters for his campaign for the Illinois Senate. He put ACORN first (it was not an alphabetical list). In the U.S. Senate, Mr. Obama became the leading critic of Voter ID laws, whose overturn was a top ACORN priority. In 2007, in a speech to ACORN’s leaders prior to their political arm’s endorsement of his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama was effusive: "I’ve been fighting alongside of ACORN on issues you care about my entire career. Even before I was an elected official, when I ran Project Vote in Illinois, ACORN was smack dab in the middle of it, and we appreciate your work."

As with the Van Jones story, the Washington Post and the New York Times were slow to notice. The Post first noted the story on September 12, relaying that two Baltimore employees in the video were fired. Three days passed before the Post ran a brief AP story on the Senate halting ACORN grants. Though it had become a major political scandal, it took eight days before the Post put it on the front page.

The New York Times ignored the Senate voting to cut off ACORN funds in the paper, and there was still nothing when the New York City Council froze its ACORN funding and the Brooklyn district attorney opened a criminal probe. On September 16, six days after the videos surfaced, the Times published a snotty Scott Shane story headlined "Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, Favored Foe." Shane wrote "It was, in effect, the latest scalp claimed by those on the right who have made no secret of their hope to weaken the Obama administration by attacking allies and appointees they view as leftist." Shane suggested conservatives believed they’d found a "winning formula.... mobilizing people to dig up dirt" and "trumpeting it on talk radio and television." The word "liberal" only came up when Robert Borosage of the "liberal Campaign for America’s Future" denounced the conservative expose as "McCarthyite."

The ombudsman or reader’s advocate at each of these papers – Andrew Alexander of the Post and Clark Hoyt of the Times – wrote columns calling out their own newspapers for their disturbing slowness on the Van Jones and ACORN scoops and suggested a lack of interest in the stories the conservative media had developed. Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worried "that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view." Times managing editor Jill Abramson said they would appoint someone inside the newsroom to review conservative media for them, like it was a strange and alien land.

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